Country & Coastal Touring

Rorkes Drift

Spirit of Emakhosini

I first come across the name Rorkes Drift while in high school in the 80’s. Back then though, during the apartheid era, the Zulu victory at Isandlwana was glossed over and the focus was all on the events at Rorkes Drift. It wasn’t until much later in life, well into my 20’s that I first visited this little station and learnt first hand about the events that occurred at Rorkes Drift on the 22nd/23rd January 1879.

The Defense of Rorkes Drift

For those that don’t know, the Battle of Rorkes Drift occurred during the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. It came fast on the heels of the Battle of Isandlwana and lasted around 12 hours, though there wasn’t constant fighting over the 12 hours, rather sporadic rushes.

The fight was between the British who were invading Zululand and of course, the Zulu’s who were intent on defending Zululand and, the Zulu way of life.

The Rorkes Drift hospital building from the front
The Rorkes Drift hospital building from the front

There are a number of possible reasons one could point to as to why the battle is well remembered; first is the fact that 145 British soldiers managed to hold off around 4000 Zulu warriors; the film “Zulu” starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker immortalized (and romanticized) the battle; there were more Victoria Crosses handed out (unnecessarily some might say) for this battle than for any other single action since.

James Rorke and Otto Witt

The little trading station known as Rorkes Drift was brought to life in the 1950’s when James Rorke purchased a plot and land and he and his wife Sarah built a trading store. After James died, Sarah moved away and the property was purchased by a Swedish Missionary group who sent out Otto Witt, his wife and three small children. From all the accounts that I read, Otto was not thrilled with the posting at all.

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879

Rorkes Drift was identified as one of the major crossing points from Natal into Zululand over the natural border of the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River. In fact, in South African parlance, a “drift” is a crossing point over a river. General Lord Chelsmford of the British forces placed one of his invading columns at the site and commandeered the buildings at Rorkes Drift to use as a storeroom and field hospital – much to Otto Witt’s disgust.

Battle of Isandlwana

On the 22nd January of 1879, the British forces received a devastating blow when the Zulu army, themselves surprised by a British patrol, in turn surprised a British camp on the flanks of a hill known locally as ‘Sndlwhana’. Here some 1400 men fighting for the British cause were overwhelmed and slaughtered – on the Zulu side, around 1500 men lost their lives.

The Defense of Rorkes Drift

Soon after the Battle of Isandlwana was over, some of the Zulu regiments continued on to Rorkes Drift and took up the fight there.

Drawing that Lt Chard made before the battle occurred
Drawing that Lt Chard made before the battle occurred

Here, under the leadership of Lt’s Bromhead and Chard, as well as heroic men such as Hook, Bourne, Hitch and so many more, the 150 odd men fought off wave after wave of Zulu attackers (some 4500 of them). Their defense of Rorkes Drift is still studied in military colleges around the world – 150 men against 4500.

The British counted around 400 dead Zulu around the hastily built fortifications of Rorkes Drift, the British lost 19 on the day, a further 2 died of their wounds days later.

Tours to Rorkes Drift

It’s no wonder then that every year tourists from around the world make the long 4 hour drive to the sites where the Battles of Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana occurred. And what makes the experience worthwhile is that the building in which the fighting occurred remains to this day. It’s not the original building, that was burnt down during the battle, but the current building was built on the foundations of the old (though slightly smaller).

Museum figures representing Chard, Bromhead and Dalton
Museum figures representing Chard, Bromhead and Dalton

There’s a museum in the building, and it’s fantastic. The displays documenting what happened are clear and go some way in describing the history. I would, however, urge visitors to go with a guide, they bring the stories of individuals alive, the heroism of Hitch and Hook (they weren’t portrayed accurately in the film – but that’s Hollywood), the true ending (the Zulu’s did not salute the British) and the smaller side storied which make one realise that these were real men with families who bore their enemy no grudge.

Getting to Rorkes Drift

There’s no quick way of getting to Rorkes Drift, from Durban it’s 4 hours, almost to the minute. From Johannesburg even further. There are signposts but I would purchase a map (GPS isn’t all that reliable out there). There are hotels you can stay (feel free to contact us for recommendations).

The Rorkes Drift Hotel from the Mzinyathi River (Buffalo River)
The Rorkes Drift Hotel from the Mzinyathi River (Buffalo River)

I personally would recommend an overnight stop (at least). On the drive up stop at KwaDukuza and learn a little about the Zulu people and King Shaka kaSezangakhona. You could stop at the Battlefields of Gingindlovu (try saying that 3 times fast!) as well as Nyezane. The fortifications of Fort Eshowe are stil there from when the British were besieged in Eshowe during the Anglo Zulu War, but they’re a little hard to see sometimes.

Rorkes Drift Hotel

I recommend overnighting at Rorkes Drift hotel, its my favorite place and it has a ghost (no one believes me but I saw him). Rorkes Drift Hotel is 20 min from Isandlwana and 5 from Rorkes Drift itself. Helpmekaar is 30 min away, Battle of Blood River monument about an hour, Dundee around 45 min away. There are others though, including B&B’s.

Booking a Private Rorkes Drift Tour

Of course, I would suggest simply booking a tour to Rorkes Drift with us here at Country and Coastal Touring. We offer three options; a day tour, an overnight tour and a 3 day tour. We’ll do the heavy lifting, the bookings and driving and such, even pack a picnic lunch. Of course if you want to plan your specific itinerary just let us know and we’ll be more than willing to assist. Oh, and out tours are private as well.

So, to booking a private Rorkes Drift tour is easy, just use one of the options below to get in touch, tell us when you would like to go and how many in your group and we’ll do the rest.

  • Give us call on our office mobile : +27(0)749956669
  • Call us on our office line : +27(0)7623374
  • Send us email on : info@cctouring.co.za
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Some Images from Tours to Rorkes Dift